"Hieronymus Bosch, Tempter and Moralist" by Larry Silver

            By choosing Psalm 33, Bosch invokes an admonitory text, calling out for righteousness, which speaks clearly to the overall purpose of this triptych for its literate, aristocratic beholders:

            Praise befits the upright . . .

            For the word of the Lord is upright;

            and all his work is done in faithfulness.

            He loves righteousness and justice;

            the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord . . . .

            Let all the earth fear the Lord,

            let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! . . .

            The Lord looks down from heaven,

            he sees all the sons of men;

            from where he sits enthroned he looks forth

            on all the inhabitants of the earth,

            he who fashions the hearts of them all,

            and observes all their deeds . . .

Bosch thus uses the words of his chosen Psalm to suggest a culmination in the Last Judgment, implied in the punishments of the Hell panel.  Thus his Garden of Delights centerpiece is posited as the very negation of righteous behavior.  Such punishment is occasioned by humanity’s continuing and obsessive search for the ultimate knowledge of good and evil by the wayward, perverse descendants of Adam and Eve.  Thereafter each sensual indulgence leads directly to a resulting punishment in Hell, where each torment is fitted to the crime, sin by sin.

            The chosen Psalm also points to the importance of true sight, the spiritual vision of the “Lord [who] looks down from heaven.”  Yet within the crowds and confusion of the interior scenes, such a detached omniscience and clear-sightedness is simply impossible.  That carnal and immoral world remains overcome by the original empty “unformed and void” earth, which God’s initiating act of Creation should have set right.  By repeating the mistake of Original Sin, partaking of (now giant) fruits and losing dominion over the animals, the children of Adam and Eve achieve only carnal knowledge in materialism and sensualism–the very opposite of the meditational use of fruit and flowers of the Song of Songs allegory that finds divine love and true wisdom within the soul rather than the physical body.  These Boschian figures take form for substance, confuse sight and the senses for true spirituality, or in-sight.  The prior tradition--of using a triptych for Christian subjects during the previous century--now is replaced by Bosch with a perverted imagery, embodying faulty vision itself, those phantasms already discerned by an early Spanish commentator, Father Sigüenza (1605), as “done with a thousand fantasies and observations that serve as warnings.”

            How, then, is the noble viewer in the Nassau town house setting able to transcend this corrupted world, to turn towards “the steadfast love of the Lord” revealed from the Psalm?  Only by ignoring the fascination of the interior, by withdrawing from the worldly enticements (even if read as seemingly so innocent) of and in the Garden.  True spiritual seeing, casting one’s gaze heavenward (and inward, with the psalmist), can only exist on the outside of this triptych.  To get to that place, the nobles must inevitably renounce their privileges and their pleasures, in order to seek “righteousness and justice.”  In effect, the moral lesson of the Garden of Delights Triptych emerges from a spiritual progress across the interior from left to right, just like his demon-infested world of Eden followed by punishments in the Vienna Last Judgment triptych.  Like other great images of Justice painted for civic leaders-- the Last Judgments painted within city halls in the Low Countries and Germany– Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights combines the sacred with the secular, to offer moral instruction as well as to provide the temptation of its Delights.

[1] Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London, 1999), 34.




Garden of Earthly Delights: View of Triptych - Click Here

Garden of Eden: Left Wing - Click Here

Garden of Earthly Delights: Central Panel - Click Here

Hell: Right Wing - Click Here

Haywain - Click Here

Last Judgment - Click Here

Ship of Fools - Click Here

Allegory of Gluttony and Lust - Click Here

Seven Deadly Sins:

Full tabletop - Click Here

Detail - Click Here

Death of the Usurer - Click Here

St. Jerome - Click Here

St. John the Baptist - Click Here

St. Anthony Triptych - Click Here

Nymph of Spring - Click Here





Back to Archive

Per Contra Winter 2006-2007